Friday, October 30, 2009

Silly over Salvia



Sometimes I think Rich Dufresne invented Salvia. I know he invented Agastache for all intents and purposes (I wish he had a penny for every one sold). Over the years he's sent me cuttings and seed and pictures of hundreds of salvias, whetting my curiosity about this pantropical, pantemperate and just plain panegyrical group of plants. There is one species that Rich won't probably grow very well in North Carolina: Salvia caespitosa is the undisputed rock garden gem of this giant genus. Like so many other fabulous Turkish plants, it was introduced into general cultivation about the time the Flora of Turkey was being written, and probably traces to an Alpine Garden expedition, or perhaps even to Peter Davis, mastermind of that incredible book.

It has been subsequently recollected by several Czechs, although their plants are not as dense and adorable as the original introduction. Albeit they are darker blue. I remember Jim Archibald once showing a slide of a lemon yellow phase of the one that's pictured above: I hope it has persisted in its wild home: Turkey is in the violent throes of transforming from a 3rd world country into a 1st world country, and as we know in America, there are great costs to this sort of metamorphosis...

There's not much one can say about a plant like this...you just sort of look at the picture and sigh. And feel sorry for those who don't have rock gardens, where you can grow this sort of treasure. Let them watch "reality television", or talk shows (is there anything sadder than people watching other people lead dull lives or talk vapidities? Oh yes, there's watching other people exersize--the definition of television sports). But I digress...

I probably grow several dozen salvias. I have probably grown nearly 100 kinds in my day. And this is really a drop in the salvia bucket. To paraphrase Socrates the night before he drank hemlock, "I want to die growing one Salvia more".

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Rising to the occasion!
























Agave neomexicana at DBG Agave utahensis v. kaibabensis at Sandy's

I grant you there are more and more agaves blooming every year in Denver. But there are certain things that call for a sort of drumroll in the garden, like when most any Amorphophallus is in blossom, or the fabulous giant Chihuahuan yuccas (which have become almost commonplace as well) and any agave blooming makes for a sort of one-plant-festival in the garden.

This year not one, not two, but three agaves bloomed at Denver Botanic Gardens (two in the Rock Alpine Garden). The one pictured above was actually in Dryland Mesa, along the northwest side: the first time this fabulous colony of rosettes had deigned to bloom. The righthand picture is historic: that's Sandy Snyder's Agave utahensis, a much rarer plant in Denver and the first time I recall this subspecies blooming here in Colorado.

The juxtaposition of these two pictures captures the tremendous contrast in this genus: and there are even greater variations: the wide panicles of A. havardiana and the brilliant red trumpets of A. polianthiflora, neither of which bloomed for anyone I know of this year, but have in the past.

If someone had told me years ago that agaves blooming would be almost commonplace in Denver, I would have said fiddlesticks. Is it a function of global warming? Or perhaps just more adventurous gardening? Whatever the cause, each year I wonder just how many will pop up this year.

Oh yes, Rod Haenni and Ann Priestman had a vivid purple-stemmed A. neomexicana bloom this year (to die for!), and I had my very own Agave parryi top out at almost 15'. Its stem and ripened seedpods are frosted thick with snow this morning. I already yearn for the season when these sentinels of the South will be in bloom again.


Sunday, October 25, 2009

Spirited Spears


I think the first foxtail lily to "take off" at the Gardens was Eremurus himalaicus in the Rock Alpine Garden: a few plants were planted early in the 1980s, and the years their buds weren't frosted (the Lower Meadow where they grew is a frost pocket) they were spectacular. I inadvertently scattered seed (after cleaning seed) in the woodland area behind the Alpine House where it germinated and a few years later a much happier colony established itself from that chaff. Sandy Snyder was the one who really first mastered these fabulous horticultural explamation point plants: I recall visiting her once fifteen, maybe 20 years ago and being dazzled by the yellow foxtail lilies. "You must have hundreds" quipped I..."237" responded she. Very Snyderian that exchange...

Sometime in the last ten years the horticulturists at DBG began putting them everywhere: gigantic E. robustus and E. himalaicus both in the Perennial Border, the steppe in Plantasia filled with E. stenophyllus, and a bunch of hybrids in the Grass Garden and the Watersmart Garden. And many more.

Pictured above is Eremurus 'Cleopatra' in my home garden in front of a purple leaf smoke tree. Do I really have to wait half a year to see these again?

A highlight of this past summer was finding Eremurus in the wild in Kazakhstan. We even obtained ripe seed of several taxa...Perhaps I might post pictures of these (I warn you they will inspire great yearning to thunder across the endless steppe in search of them, flags flapping in the wind, your pony straining and the trumpets blaring...)

One thing I know: one can never have enough money, love or foxtail lilies...I'd better check out some local nurseries and see if I can pick out a few more before winter settles in with a vengeance.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

I'm not ready for winter....



I can look over my computer as I type this and a delightful dusting of snow (ridiculously like powdered sugar) has bent the branches of the Scots Pines in the distance and frosted the daphnes and cushions and mounds in my rock garden: a lovely picture really. One I shall certainly get used to in the coming months...winter has her monochromatic charms.

But give me summer! I remember in July being beastly hot and yearning for a bit of autumn coolth. Fiddlesticks: I want heat again! I want the sun to burn down and my hat to get sweaty. Most of all, I want all the flowers to bloom all over again. Above is the limestone cliff section of the Rock Alpine Garden at Denver Botanic Gardens where I spent so many enchanted years as Curator. Front and center is Allium caeruleum, not the measly plant of commerce, but a robust, giant form from Mary Ann Heacock (I vaguely remember she said she got it from a correspondent in Bulgaria, I believe). When it blooms, the high season of June is at the very peak, and the mountains are coming into their own, and life is going full throttle.

I must plant more of this allium in my own garden. And maybe it's not too late for some bulbs: most autumns I order from two or three bulb catalogues, and usually get some from special collectors. This year I didn't, and I'm beginning to have pangs of guilt: if I don't plant some bulbs in my garden, will spring ever come again? I guess I better saunter on down to Timberline or Country Fair garden centers and see what they still have kicking around...

Meanwhile, I'll grudgingly admire the powdered sugar trees and shrubs, and get back to that mountain of paperwork that never seems to go away.

Monday, October 19, 2009

My National Grass: Little Bluestem




I have not been very subtle about my annoyance with Karl. That's short for Calamagrostis x acutiflora 'Karl Foerster': the accursed thing is everywhere. There are armies of Karl marching around practically every shopping center like storm troopers. He stands lonely sentinel in most every perennial border. He's usually planted in groups of three or four--stiff, upright, pointy tow headed jumbo matchsticks, turning straw yellow in midsummer (as if to remind you that summer is fleeting and life consists mostly of winter and death and destruction). I would not mind Karl if he would act like most kindly bores, and just hover a bit out of sight and let the belles rule the dance floor. The belle of grasses in this case is bluestem.

There could never be enough little bluestem: I wish I could wave a Harry Potter wand and turn all those blasted Karls into 'Blaze' or 'Blues' or just plain generic Schizachyrium scoparium. Throughout the summer they are reassuringly bluegreen or greenish mounds of verdure, weaving the garden together and coming to a marvellous crescendo of modest bloom in late summer. But as soon as the weather turns chilly, something astonishing occurs: little bluestems become fiery dusky rose bonfires that burst into fiery crimsons and reds and gorgeous deep pinks when backlit by the morning or evening sun.

No two look identical, and they vary pleasingly in height, shape and form. And everywhere they combine neatly with whatever you grow with them. Unlike Karl, they are drought tolerant as cacti. They thrive with lots of water, and grow in sun or shade. I declare once and for all, this is the grass of grasses: never so blatant with blossoms as some, but bringing a sort of ecstasy to the autumn garden that stands up in snow and wind and rain and blasting weather for weeks and months through the dreariest season. Did I mention that Little Bluestem grows across much of North America and thrives in almost any soil and exposure and that it is a winner?
The picture above was taken recently in Berthoud at the Northern Water Conservation Gardens. The one bat the top at the Pueblo Nature Center a few weeks ago. You can find dazzling examples of this plant almost anywhere this time of year. Why do people watch television when you can watch bluestem?

Is there a lesson in all this? The lesson is that you can never have too much of a good thing (Little Bluestem) and yes, you can have too much of a mediocre thing (Karl). Quit reading this blog immediately and go out and plant 100 new little bluestems RIGHT AWAY! I did so last week, and believe me, I am a better man for it!






Sunday, October 18, 2009

Bokhara Fritillary





I doubt if it actually grows in the city of Bokhara. Maybe in the foothills nearby. For someone with a life long fascination with Central Asia, certain epithets reverberate and shimmer: kokandica, seravshcanica, bucharica, ferghanica, turkestanica and more all summon images of the heart of Asia. I have often imagined the glint on the golden domes of Samarkand, the shifting sands of the many deserts, the dull glow of a distant snowy peak on an overcast day. Central Asia is the American West on steroids (and the American West is big enough with five hundred mountain ranges). Our floras are twinned, the climate, ecology and landforms echo back and forth. But the depth and complexity of Asia, even just Central Asia, brings new nuance to Old World.

This past summer I spent three weeks in Central Asia: two weeks in Kazakhstan and a week in westernmost Mongolia: hard to believe I haven't blogged on this yet. It has taken months and months to sort through and organize my images and thoughts.

Along the path of my fascination with this part of the world, certain plants like the Incarvillea in my last post, and this Fritillaria have fanned the flames of my ardor. Fritillaria bucharica is one of relatively few white flowered fritillaries (most of the genus comes in strange, dark, brooding colors or else yellow and rarely red or orange). There are common white forms of the commonest European species: F. meleagris: these are pleasing enough, although just a tiny bit, well, dowdy. There is a strange white species sold occasionally in commerce which I've grown (but not bloomed) for a few years: F. involucrata: To my astonishment, it grew practically everywhere we stopped in the far eastern Kazakh steppe: it should be a fabulous plant for Colorado gardens judging by where it grew. We collected thousands of seeds, so this should one day be a commonplace.

But what of the subject of this blog? There are plants that flit and plants that sit and plants that tantalize and taunt. This is a tease of a plant: One of Britain's great bulb growers sent dozens of young bulbs (unsolicited by the way) of this lovely species fifteen or so years ago I planted here and there all over my last garden on Eudora. He had overproduced them and was curious how they would do. I'm talking fifty, maybe a hundred bulbs. This is the sort of dream gift that blesses those of us who pursue a hobby to ridiculous lengths. I've probably had a hundred gifts on this order--maybe more: they're the Christmas events of our lives...what do you do with a hundred relatively tiny bulbs? I tucked them here and there and everywhere in my Eudora garden. It took a few years for them to begin blooming. And bloom they did. They have grown and prospered and put on quite a show. This picture depicts a few of them one splendiferous year. And then we came to sell that house: It was early spring--how do you move a garden with two thousand kinds of plants? Of course you don't: the new owners bought the garden as much as the house. But you move what you can. I moved as many of this frit as I could locate that early in the game (I left plenty behind). And moved they did. This past spring they started blooming well at my Quince home.

But neither here nor at Eudora did they ever set a single seedpod. Huge plants boasting a mass of blooms, looking and growing well. No seed, no progeny in this case...I don't think it multiplies sufficiently to divide.

So I am left with as many plants as I was sent, only with the occasional attrition (mostly due to my slicing this or that bulb in the summer or fall as I plant something new on top of them)...

Perhaps some day I will figure out how to pollinate them: surely that's the hitch. Meanwhile, every April I relish and admire these steely white bells that ring a bit of Central Asian music in my garden.












Friday, October 16, 2009

The ones that get away....



I should have known not to have hogged it. I got seed of it years ago (I think I got seed from Gert Boehme in the former East Germany). The plant is very local in Uzbekistan, and I don't know anyone else who grew it. I grew the seed at home, got several plants: these pictures show the plant when it was in its glory years, some time ago:

The name: Incarvillea semiretschenskia. The lesson: share.
The Himalayas are full of wonderful incarvilleas--tiny herbaceous cousins to Catalpa. Most are herbaceous, stemless and lovely. But I've never seen one as graceful and lissome and just generally charming as this frilly queen of the steppes. And she's gone back to the wild steppes of Central Asia once more.
I don't know why I didn't bother to share germ plasm. I did give some to the propagator at work and we had a few plants at the Gardens for a couple of years. But the parent plants, the original ones that taunt me now with their feathery leaves and irridescent pink bells--I enjoyed them year after year and just let them sit there. All mine! I knew that if and when I let someone get cuttings from the abundant basal shoots in the spring, or if I gave someone some of the frustrating seed (a challenge to bust out of the rock hard seedpods), I knew that soon everyone would have it. Of course I Wanted Everyone to Have it...eventually. But in the meantime she was all mine...Mine...MINE (Brahaahahahahaha! To be shouted out with maniacal evil tones).
And now I only have a few dozen seed in an envelope from before my marriage breakup that I've not had time to sow, and Heaven only knows if it's even viable any more. Did I mention that these seed are produced in the most decorative seedpods imaginable: they look like fluted, ornamented, sculpted Christmas ornaments, and they last all summer. And they are as hard as rocks to break open to remove a smattering of seed.
The chances of getting fresh seed are pretty slim.
The moral of the story is....share. Share lots. Plants are not the province of an individual. They should not be owned by nations or countries (despite the Rome Accord). Plants--especially beautiful and easily propagated plants--should be passed around and become the universal treasure of gardeners anywhere. That is the secret of propagation. If I'd only done with this what I have done with dozens of other gems, you and I might both have it in our gardens today.
Instead, just look at those pictures and tell me if it doesn't make you feel a tad sad too...sniff.